Friday, March 17, 2006

Claudia Goldin on the "Opt-Out" Revolution and Some Ranting

Goldin is an emerita professor of economics and a very competent researcher, so what she writes about the supposed "opt-out" revolution of educated women is well worth reading:

But the facts speak loudly and clearly against such suppositions. Women who graduated 25 years ago from the nation's top colleges did not "opt out" in large numbers, and today's graduates aren't likely to do so either.

To know whether a woman sacrificed career for her family, we need to know her employment status over many years. The Mellon Foundation did just that in the mid-1990's, collecting information on more than 10,000 women (and 10,000 men) who entered one of 34 highly selective colleges and universities in 1976 and graduated by 1981. We thus have detailed data about their educational, family and work histories when they were in their late 30's. That gives us enough information to figure out whether many women who graduated from top-ranked schools have left the work force.

Among these women fully 58 percent were never out of the job market for more than six months total in the 15 or so years that followed college or more advanced schooling. On average, the women in the survey spent a total of just 1.6 years out of the labor force, or 11 percent of their potential working years. Just 7 percent spent more than half of their available time away from employment.

These women were, moreover, committed not just to their careers. They were also wives and mothers — 87 percent of the sample had been married, 79 percent were still married 15 years after graduation and 69 percent had at least one child (statistics that are similar to national ones for this demographic group from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey). Women with at least one child spent a total of 2.1 years on average out of the labor force, or 14 percent of their potential time. Fifty percent of those with children never had a non-employment (non-educational) spell lasting more than 6 months.

You could argue that they opted out of their careers in more subtle ways, say, by choosing less demanding careers than those for which they had trained. But the occupation data for these women suggest otherwise. Women in these graduating classes stuck with their specialties to about the same degree as did comparable men. The vast majority of women who went to medical school were employed as doctors when in their late 30's; similarly, women who received law degrees were practicing lawyers.

What about more recent graduates, those who finished school 10 years ago and are, today, in their early 30's? It is too early to tell for sure, but there are strong hints that little has changed on the opt-out front. Statistics from the National Vital Statistics System show that highly educated women today are having babies even later in life on average than did the entering class of 1976 (and are having more of them). The Current Population Survey tells us that the percentage of college-educated women in their 30's who work has been high (in the 80 percent range) and fairly constant since the early 1990's, although the percentage dropped a bit — along with that of their male counterparts in the recent economic slump.

The fraction in their late 30's who are married, moreover, is around 75 percent and has not budged in the last 25 years. Taken together, the facts — later babies, more babies, high and fairly constant employment rates, stable marriage rates — don't spell big opt-out to me. And they don't spell big opt-out change either.

But this will have no impact on the conversations about this topic. For some reason the question what women are allowed to do is of eternal interest to all participants. The question what men are allowed to do, not so much. Sometimes this works to women's advantage, but mostly we feel like we are always under the microscope, always studied for trends that might hurt the "society" (which somehow doesn't include us), always regardes as the "others".

To see what I mean with that mini-rant, consider the number of pages that comes out every year about mummy wars or the opt-out revolution or the death of feminism or how women are inherently weaker in this or that aspect. Underlying all this is the fear that what women might do could destroy the Western civilization or cause the extinction of white people or liberals or some such group.

Then consider how we practically never discuss the fact that the vast majority of prison inmates are men, that the vast majority of violence and wars is carried out by men and so on. This isn't seen as threatening the survival of civilizations or people, for some odd reason. It's just how things are. But what women do is a cause for worry.